Movie review: Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve recreates the moral vacancy that defined Ridley Scott’s masterpiece through his textured frames, but even with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling in lead roles, the movie lacks an emotional connection
Blade Runner 2049
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 2 hrs 43 mins
By Katherine Monk
Memories lay at the thematic core of the first Blade Runner. And they impose on the second.
In the first film, directed by Ridley Scott, memories were believed to be an essential ingredient in what made up human identity, and perhaps, the elusive human soul. They made humans different from simulated beings called Replicants, corporate constructions designed as slave labour. Yet, as Replicant consciousness grew, so did notions of free will, and inevitable rebellion.
In order to maintain control of their product, the corporate forces ensured each Replicant had an expiry date. More importantly, these business-minded scientist savants learned the importance of memory: encoded information that provides a sense of identity through experience — whether it be real, or artificial.
If the Replicants felt human, then what’s the moral difference between real and fake human beings? Suffering is suffering. Or is it?
It’s a convoluted question, and probably the main reason why the film is now recognized as the classic it is: We’re still processing the impact of technology on our metaphysical selves.
Scott’s Blade Runner asked a lot of questions, but Denis Villeneuve’s sequel can only answer the shallower ones…. Like who’s a Replicant and who isn’t.
The studio asked those answers to remain a secret, as well as several other plot details (which seems a little kooky in these days of social media), but that’s our good fortune. It means we can focus on the bigger question. One that still ripples through the fibres of the second film as we stretch thirty years forward — from the 2019 envisioned in Philip K. Dick’s book, to 2049 — in pursuit of the human truth, and the pivotal role of memory.
I saw Blade Runner shortly after it came out. The film didn’t earn a lot of critical praise at the time. Variety called it “morose” and “slow.” But I was enrapt. The movie became a cornerstone of my pubescent life, and in turn a piece of my identity. That memory, and the feeling I have watching every version, is part of who I am.
Denis Villeneuve says he felt the same attachment to the original. It’s why he took on the task: He didn’t want anyone else to “fuck it up.”
He doesn’t fuck it up. But he does fuck it, with love. Villeneuve takes Ridley Scott’s original by the hand and leads it into the big-barrel-lensed boudoir of Hollywood homage.
We meet our central character, K (Ryan Gosling), and he immediately feels familiar in his overcoat and cynical stare. Like Harrison Ford’s Deckard, he’s a blade runner — a man assigned by the LAPD to ‘retire” replicants.
There may be a new replicant revolution brewing, and Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) is eager to stamp it out before it becomes a cyborg conflagration. K is the man who can deliver, but like his emotional predecessor, he runs into a wall of personal conflict.
Denis Villeneuve says he felt the same attachment to the original. It’s why he took on the task: He didn’t want anyone else to “fuck it up.” He doesn’t fuck it up. But he does fuck it, with love. Villeneuve takes Ridley Scott’s original by the hand and leads it into the big-barrel-lensed boudoir of Hollywood homage.
Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have recycled so many bits and pieces of the first film’s plot, a great deal of Blade Runner 2049 feels more like a reboot than a revisit, but that’s not a bad thing — until you realize the first film may have done it better.
Under Ridley Scott’s direction, we came to know and love a wide variety of characters. We had Ford playing the Bogart-styled hard-boiled detective, Sean Young played the post-apocalyptic femme fatale, William Sanderson played a genetically defective robotics genius, and Rutger Hauer, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah and Brion James played the synthetic creatures who eventually win our sympathy.
The whole story tucked Greek mythology and the Old Testament under its arm, giving it metaphysical scope as it dazzled with ingenious, surprisingly low-tech special effects.
The new film is an obvious study of the first. Villeneuve creates a mood that matches the original with its exaggerated contrasts, saturated colours and murky atmospherics. Every space seems to echo. Every surface is either reflective or semi-transparent.
About the only thing that’s really changed is the weather. This is a world where climate change has transformed the Los Angeles basin into a snowy wonderland bordered by a towering steel sea wall.
Villeneuve offers up a selection of sky views that let us see a largely flooded land mass covered with man-made cubes. It seems humanity is struggling to reclaim a fouled Eden, but all it can do is build boxes with a facsimile of nature inside.
Translate that theme into the larger piece, and you get an idea of where Blade Runner 2049 is trying to take us: Into the same dark heart of what makes us human, and in turn, what fuels our desire to become gods.
Both quests, and both states, are forever intertwined in the underlying narrative. Villeneuve has a talent for scanning soul and Gosling is an actor who can give it shape, but for all the care and deference that went into the creation of each scene, Blade Runner 2049 lacks an emotional punch.
Beyond the thrill of seeing Scott’s whole world resurrected in deep focus, there’s a palpable absence of real feelings. Outside of K, we never seem to get close enough to any of the characters to really care about their outcome.
Interesting people such as Wright’s Joshi, Jared Leto’s mad genius Wallace, K’s lover Joi (Ana de Armas) and flesh peddler Mackenzie Davis (a dead ringer for Daryl Hannah) feel under-developed. Without flesh on the bones of story, we can see the mechanics of the exercise.
The first film was all blood and guts and analog effects. Humanity was in every frame, forcing us to care for the so-called villains and question the socially-assigned good guys. The result was
a hero with a suspect mandate and a movie that questioned Judeo-Christian fundamentals.
Blade Runner 2049 also has a message. It follows the same metaphysical arguments all the way down the garden path in its quest to retrace the roots of self-knowledge, the memory of sin.
Villeneuve has so much style, and such a sincere desire to pay homage to the first, that he doesn’t really need to dec6are a point of view or espouse a particular opinion. That’s for the next movie. Besides, most of us are happy for this new Blade Runner’s existence. It lets us re-experience a fundamental fragment of memory.
The Big Questions remain. Yet, in the very experience of watching this new Blade Runner, we’re reminded of an eternal truth: Memories influence perception. Villeneuve’s film is a slave, a lover, and a friend to Scott’s take on Philip K. Dick’s book and Scott’s adaptation. His memory of the first gives him insight. It also makes him a prisoner of expectation.
The same goes for each one of us with a chunk of identity trapped in a movie. Whether it’s Blade Runner or Star Wars, Mean Girls or Boyz n the Hood, we know it’s all just egg-cartons and built sets, but we still have real feelings about these fake worlds.
Blade Runner 2049 leaves our precious memories intact, but it doesn’t really leave an impression. It’s like having sex with a hologram: it’s more a function of desire and imagination than a matter of being touched.
Photo: Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049. Credit Stephen Vaughan, Courtesy of Alcon, Warner Bros.
THE EX-PRESS, October 6, 2017